Conference Theme: Exchanging Knowledge in Oceania

At the end of the 7th ESfO conference, Verona 2008, a round-table of Pacific Islands academics forcefully urged their colleagues to take seriously the consequences of the theme ‘putting people first’: they wanted academics to acknowledge the obligations activated by their relations in Oceania, and to recognize the responsibilities to Oceanic peoples, to the Academy and to Civil Society that come with the exchange of expert knowledge. Simply put, knowledge transfers work both ways, and they wanted academics to act.

Academics face similar calls from Governments, Research Councils, Industry and Policy-Makers to demonstrate explicitly the usefulness of their expert knowledge, and increasingly, ’Knowledge Transfer’ or 'Knowledge Exchange' activities, such as user relevance and public engagement, are key conditions of research funding. Demand for exchanging knowledge into useful activities from all sides entails new conceptual frames and working relations that derive their force from different rationales. Consequently, the exchange value of academic knowledge is becoming determined by the use value others see in it. These moves risk instrumentalizing knowledge and envision re-making anthropology as a science of prescription, rather than a technique of description that acts through re-writing concepts.

Clearly, the moment creates an opportunity for new kinds of social relations in Oceania for the twenty-first century. But these various calls to act will involve facing up to serious questions in re-imagining the continuities of our own academic traditions, and of our relations in Oceania. Can we imagine new collaborative forms of academic practice? How might we best re-describe anthropological methods, relations and knowledge to respond to the aspirations of the

‘knowledge transfer’ agenda? Whether from a position inside or outside a University, what forms of academic practices, relations, ethics and roles are emerging in contemporary Oceania?

Perhaps we might look for answers by addressing a contemporary dilemma that Oceanic peoples and Oceanist academics share: How to re-describe and transfer knowledge and so make their cultural resources useful, effective and resilient in the contemporary world? We might begin by looking at the kinds of ‘knowledge’ at stake.

Questions arise for peoples in the region over the paths to take in creating social forms relevant to current contexts. Development ambitions and legal terminologies are shaping and eliciting new forms of indigenous social life?through which people also continue to act out their own social analyses of these encounters. What kinds of cultural connections are being made by Oceanic peoples growing up in such a 'post-tradition' epoch? What transfers, transformations and appropriations are people making between old and new sources of cultural knowledge?

Questions also arise for academics who have bodies of traditional cultural resources of their own to deal with. What uses are perceived for detailed literatures when research subjects appear increasingly to share fewer continuities with those peoples, practices or places? What kinds of connections between contemporary theories of social life and the rich ethnographic record are anthropologists claiming?

Knowledge exchange in Oceania has always involved two-way traffic. In asking about the emergent properties of reciprocity, responsibility and obligation constituted in academic research relations with Oceanic peoples, what leads and lessons can we draw from the solutions that Oceanic peoples are fashioning for themselves out of this contemporary dilemma? Equally, what roles and capacities are Oceanic peoples fashioning for academics who are interested in the region?

ESfO conferences are renowned for gathering together academics based in different regions of the world: Exchanging Knowledge in Oceania aims to put this gathering of inter-personal and conceptual relations to work in examining what kinds of knowledge transfers between bodies of knowledge are currently going on in Oceania, and what kinds of emergent relations are being formed.